In a long-ago experiment by Columbia University social psychologist Stanley Schachter, groups discussed how to deal with fictional juvenile delinquent “Johnny Rocco.” One “modal” group member (actually Schachter’s accomplice) concurred with the others in arguing for leniency and became well liked. A second accomplice, the “deviate,” stood alone in arguing for harsh discipline. At first, the study participants argued with the nonconforming deviate, but eventually they ignored him and then reported disliking him.
Recent experiments with children and adults confirm the lesson: Groups respond harshly to members who deviate from group norms and threaten their group identity. Other studies show how agonizingly difficult it can be to publicly state truths after hearing consensus falsehoods from one’s peers, and how “groupthink” suppresses dissent. After President John F. Kennedy’s ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, his adviser Arthur Schlesinger, having self-censored his misgivings, reproached himself “for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions.”
To dissent from one’s group—one’s fraternity, one’s religion, one’s friends—can be painful, especially when a minority of one.
Mitt Romney understands. For being a minority of one in voting for President Trump’s removal, he anticipated being “vehemently denounced. I’m sure to hear abuse from the President and his supporters.”
And so he has. “I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,” vented the President, before ridiculing Romney for “one of the worst campaigns in the history of the presidency.” Donald Trump, Jr. went further, calling for Romney to “be expelled” from the GOP. Romney, some Congressional colleagues derided, was a “sore loser” who acted “to appease the left” and was “not very collegial.”
The rewards of conformity, and the rejection of dissenters, are no secret. As President Kennedy recalled in Profiles in Courage (1955), “‘The way to get along,’ I was told when I entered Congress, ‘is to go along.’” It is a temptation we all face. When feeling alone, we may silence our voice. We may join a standing ovation for something we do not inwardly applaud. We may succumb to the power of our herd and its leader.
And then, feeling some dissonance over conforming, we rationalize. Observing our own silence and our false witness, our mind mutates, and we begin to believe what we reluctantly stood up for. Our attitudes follow our actions, which grow their own self-justifying legs. As C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity, “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”
For those who endure the distress of dissent, there are compensations.
First, minorities of one can matter. “All history,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is a record of the power of minorities, and of minorities of one.” Think of Copernicus and Galileo, of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. In the short term, these heroes, and the conformity-resisting former senators whom Kennedy later celebrated in Profiles in Courage, were scorned for flouting team play and resisting expectations. It was only later that historians and filmmakers honored their heroism. Mitt Romney can take the long view.
Second, experiments on “minority influence” show how a minority of one can matter; When such individuals, despite ridicule, persist with consistency, they can sway their laboratory group, or even change history. Being a persistent dissenting voice may get you disliked and even ignored, but it can also, eventually, stimulate rethinking. It punctures the illusion of unanimity and can enable others to express their doubts. That voice is especially potent when it represents a defection from the ingroup rather than a voice from the opposition. A Republican Mitt Romney is harder for Republicans to dismiss than a Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ergo, those who dissent—who deviate from group norms and threaten a group’s identity—are often scorned. Yet a persistent, consistent, cogent voice sometimes moves the needle. “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide,” said Emerson, “the huge world will come round to him.”
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)